By Daniel Schearf
01 March 2009
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has ended its summit in Thailand with a short statement encouraging Burma to release political prisoners and allow democracy.
Host Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva officially ended the two-day ASEAN summit.
At a press briefing, he told journalists the Southeast Asian leaders agreed to work harder on regional cooperation and speeding up economic integration.
He said the alliance also gave a message for their least popular member, Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
"The ASEAN leaders encouraged Myanmar to continue cooperation with the United Nations and to make sure that the roadmap continues according to plan, and that the process would be as inclusive as possible, which includes, of course, the continuation of the release of prisoners or political detainees and also the participation of political parties in the upcoming election," said Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Burma's military-run government has drawn out a "roadmap to democracy" that critics say is designed to keep the generals in power.
They forced a constitution that will guarantee the military at least 25 percent of legislative seats in next year's election.
In the past week Burma has released about 20 political prisoners. But rights groups say there are more than 2,000 in detention, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The United States and other countries have sanctions against Burma for suppressing Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy which won the most seats in 1990 legislative elections.
The Obama administration says it plans to review the sanctions policy.
ASEAN's Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan on Sunday told VOA that Burma should take the opportunity seriously.
"It is a new beginning. Change or not change we do not know," said Pitsuwan. "But, certainly there is a new beginning with the new administration in Washington."
Former ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong told VOA the U.S. policy review was the most important thing to happen on Burma since last year's summit. He said Burmese authorities needed to respond positively or else the opportunity would be missed.
"I am not optimistic that they are going to move very fast," said Yong. "I am not sure how they are going to respond. But, I believe that all these voices, all these conversations must be having an impact on them. Whether we are going to see immediate reaction I am not sure."
Saturday at the summit, the Burmese and Cambodian Prime Ministers refused to meet with rights activists from their countries, despite the dialogue being on the official schedule.
A women's caucus representative told VOA that activists from Laos and Brunei did not attend the summit for fear of reprisals from their governments.
Despite the lack of engagement in what was billed as a "people's" summit, Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan was optimistic that progress was being made.
"But, I think we take comfort in the fact that at least they have begun to accept the fact that they cannot keep out the people and the civil society forever," he said. "So, that is a good beginning. And, let us move from there."
Also at this year's ASEAN sunnit, a free-trade agreement signed between ASEAN, Australia, and New Zealand that could be worth tens of billions of dollars. The agreement was hailed as one element in the fight against the global financial crisis.
Other ASEAN members include Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.